Sunday, June 10, 2012

Basketball Reasons

Dear Steve Kerr,

Now that the conference finals are over and you and the rest of the TNT guys are done until next season, I think it’s only right to pause for a second and to remember the last couple of weeks. Ever notice that as soon as a team is eliminated, it’s like they cease to exist until the season’s over? Usually I like that—it’s nice not to hear about the Lakers or remember how consistently mediocre the Rockets are—but man, I hate to see these Spurs and Celtics exit the stage. I really do. I also hate to see you TNT guys exit the stage. Everybody knows the Inside the NBA crew is great (besides Shaq, who’s terrible except for a few moments of unconscious greatness, but who I’d sort of miss if he left), but people don’t talk enough about what a great commentator you are—really intelligent, funny, and most of all, genuinely enthusiastic about the game. It's heartening to see a guy who still loves basketball as much as you do. You’ve retained your awe, which I really respect. You're one of those great enthusiasts who makes everybody else enjoy themselves even more through your enthusiasm.

During the last Thunder/Spurs game, there was a stretch of incredible back-and-forth basketball and I remember at one point, you said, “This is just brilliant stuff.” I really liked that, and it was totally true. And not just for that stretch: over the last couple of weeks, there's been brilliant stuff happening every single night. I can’t remember a pair of conference finals this good since the days when you were teammates with MJ. Actually, maybe even before that. There’ve been some incredible conference finals over the years—the Bulls team you played on vs. your partner Reggie’s Pacers, for one—but for a year when the Western and Eastern finals were both as good as these? In my opinion, we’d have to go back to 1993, right when I was really getting into basketball as a teenager. That was Suns vs. Sonics in the West and Bulls vs. Knicks in the East. Recall: Suns in 7, Bulls in 6, but Knicks went up 2-0. In the first game of that Bulls/Knicks series, Starks had the memorable left-handed baseline jam on Horace Grant and MJ, a play that I’d bet still quietly occupies space in millions of brains. Then MJ had 54 in Game 4, most of them in Starks’s face, and averaged 32/6/7 for the series. In Game 7 of the other series, with a trip to the Finals on the line, Barkley had 44 points and 24 boards. Man, that was a pair of great conference finals. And I think this year’s two series were along those lines. In fact, I can’t remember ever enjoying two different playoff series at the same time as much as I enjoyed these, 1993 included. I know we'll remember these series, most likely, as the moments when LeBron and Durant both reached new levels, Durant in that 18 point fourth quarter in Game 4, LeBron (obviously) in his 45-points-in-45-minutes-in-an-elimination-game performance in Game 6. But let’s not just forget the other incredible performances by guys on the losing teams, the ones by Parker (Game 2) and Ginobili (5) and Stephen Jackson (6) and in the other series by Garnett (5) and Pierce (the final-minute three in Bron’s face in Game 5) and most of all, the entire series of performances by Rondo.

Even though you didn’t announce the Eastern finals, Steve, I’m 100% sure you were just as thrilled by it as I was, knowing how much you love the game. And, man, I hate to see Rondo exit the stage most of all. Let’s remember that epic Game 2 performance in defeat (44 points, 10 assists, 8 boards) and the game 3 and 4 performances in victory, and the fact that in Game 7 Rondo led the Celtics in points, rebounds, and assists (22/14/10). The guy was freaking ridiculous. I hope we keep that in mind for a while. Let the other losing players cease to exist until next year, but not Rondo. Remember his fake behind-the-back in Game 3? The one that made Udonis Haslem run the exact opposite direction as Rondo drove in for an uncontested layup? Oh, man. And remember that pass in Game 4, the one-handed bounce pass? The one to a cutting Pierce that Rondo bounced right past LeBron’s feet? The one that made Mike Breen say, “Another beauty!” and that made Van Gundy respond, “No, no. That. Does not. Do it. Justice”? The one where you can watch the replay multiple times and still not see the angle and opening that Rondo saw? I mean, how great were those two plays, Steve? Watching the Spurs score 120 on the Thunder was a reminder of the pure joy of watching great basketball, and watching those two plays by Rondo was the same exact thing on a micro-level. Those plays belong with Starks’s dunk in the Playoff Highlight Hall of Fame. And even though the Spurs and Celts lost—I was pulling for both, by the way—let’s not forget how damn good they were at times, and how good Rondo was almost all the time.

Drama is obviously one of the things that makes sports great. The drama of not knowing how it's gonna end, the characters, the conflict. The narratives surrounding the game. That’s why the Olympics always gives you all those background stories before they show you the event, right? But sometimes it seems like we get so caught up in the drama surrounding the game that we forget the actual game. There’s something to be said for those times when the game is enough, when the actual performance on the field of play is so brilliant that we don’t need any other stories. And during these conference finals, the actual games were enough. LeBron played so well that we could forget all the chatter and debate and schadenfreude and just admire his game for once. Durant played so well that we just wanted Lil Wayne to go away when he called the Thunder organization racist for not giving him last-minute floor seats (and when Ryan Seacrest showed up in OKC floor seats the following game). During the regular season, yeah, we needed stories and debates. We needed, for example, Wizards players who spent ten thousand dollars on lottery tickets (i.e. Chris Singleton, who said it was “either that or blowing it in the clubs”). But that’s because we had to deal with the tedium and mediocrity of the regular season and the existence of teams like the Wizards. Now, though, we don’t need Lil Wayne or Seacrest or Chris Singleton and his ten thousand losing lottery tickets. The basketball, for once, is enough. And let’s salute the Spurs and the Celtics—especially Rajon—for helping making that possible. It's been pretty dang fun. And the best part is we get a couple more weeks of potential brilliance. Thunder vs. Heat? The two current best players in the world going against each other? Oh, man. I feel like a teenager again.



P.S. In the ‘93 Finals, MJ had 50+ in one game, 40+ in three games, and 30+ in the other two games. Something along those lines from Durant or LeBron would be nice.